Lady Gaga’s music video for Born This Way begins with a creation myth about the origins of an imaginary Manichaen world. Her voice-over, accompanied by stunning visuals and set to portions of the magnificent Bernard Herrmann score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, tells of the “infinite” birth of “a new race, a race within the race of humanity. A race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom.” On the same day that this “goodness” came into existence, evil was also born. Lady Gaga’s preamble concludes with a cryptic line: “But she wondered, ‘How can I protect something so perfect without evil?’” Not from evil, mind you, but without it.
If you parse the prolog, this “she” must refer to a kind of Mother Goddess, the eternal womb that gave birth to good and evil. “She” seems to believe that evil is existentially necessary in order to preserve perfection. If so, it would imply a kind of splitting, where we can only believe in perfect goodness if we balance it with perfect badness. The alternative would be a return to ordinary humanity and shades of gray, where all human beings are a mixed bag, in which pain, prejudice and judgment are unavoidable.
As she often does, Lady Gaga wants to communicate the importance of self-love and self-acceptance, particularly for those who suffer from judgment and self-hatred because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Her message is that we are all born “superstars,” perfect and beautiful because “God makes no mistakes.” She calls out to those in pain:
“Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set”
Were it not for the rhyme demands of this verse, she would have used the word “shame” instead of “regret.” Listening to her music or her interviews, you get the feeling she genuinely cares for those who suffer in shame because of their difference, because they feel weird or damaged in some way, as she did when growing up. I have no doubt she wants to help and uses her music to reach out to those people in pain. If you visit any of the sites where this song and its lyrics have been discussed, you’ll see that there are hundreds of comments from people who love and feel inspired by Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” music video. It feels to many of them like their anthem.
While I admire Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way music video and believe in her good intentions, I know very well that you can’t acquire good feelings about yourself in this way. Even if it’s true, that we are all born perfect, many of us are soon damaged by a toxic emotional environment in ways that leave scars for life. Telling people riddled with feelings of profound shame that they are “superstars” might make them feel good for a moment — especially if they’re listening to your inspirational music and identifying with you in the process. But in the end, such a message only encourages an endless need for more encouragement, in order to keep warding off the underlying bad feelings.
It also promotes splitting, where the “perfect” me can only be protected by belief in the “evil” that lies outside (bad judgmental people, religious hypocrites, redneck homophobes, etc.) I’ve discussed the topic of genuine self-respect and how to develop it in a post about the difference between narcissism and authentic self-esteem.
In another article on typical defenses against shame, I identified three such defenses: narcissism, blaming and contempt. After watching Lady Gaga’s career, I would say there is yet another way to cope with shame. I’m not sure I would call it a defense, per se, but she brings to mind a famous quote from Freud in his classic paper, ‘Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning‘ (1911):
“The artist is originally someone who, unable to come to term with the renunciation of drive satisfaction initially demanded by reality, turns away from it and gives free rein to erotic and ambitious wishes in his fantasy life. Thanks to special gifts, however, he finds his way back to reality from this fantasy world by shaping his fantasies into new kinds of reality, which are appreciated by people as valid representations of the real world.”
While Freud discussed the process in terms of instinctual drives, I would instead say that sometimes, an artist is a person who has taken refuge from unbearable suffering in fantasy life, but finds a way back to reality by turning those fantasies into works of art. In Lady Gaga’s case, I think she has managed to take profound shame and make it into something aesthetic and compelling.
By putting her shame on display — she’s not afraid to make herself look ugly, or to expose herself in ways that other people might find “shameless” — she has in a sense triumphed over that shame. Charlie Sheen may run from shame into his fantasy-identity as a “rock star,” but in contrast, Lady Gaga taps into her fantasy life and transforms her shame into something that in reality is aesthetically beautiful and moving. And what an amazing fantasy life it is! However you feel about Lady Gaga’s musical compositions, the visual imagery of the “Born This Way” music video, along with her other music videos, is truly stunning and unique.
In my view, she is in many ways a heroic figure. She refuses to let shame debilitate her; instead, she puts her shame on display and converts it into art. For this reason, I call Lady’s Gaga’s “Born This Way” music video an utter triumph over the crippling power of shame. Unfortunately for most of us, this kind of artistic triumph isn’t a viable option, for we don’t possess her “special gifts,” in Freud’s terms. But we can all follow her actual example (not the simplistic self-love slogans of her music): work hard, be brave, don’t let the shame keep you locked up; then go out and do something constructive, productive … even artistic with your life, something that might make you feel truly proud.
It’s the only way to achieve genuine self-respect.
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Last reviewed: 27 Jun 2011